Hawks push unfamiliar allies into a belligerent embrace

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Hawks push unfamiliar allies into a belligerent embrace

Chris Stephen and Tim Judah in Gulbahar, Afghanistan

Sunday November 4, 2001

It is not much of an air base - just a gravel airstrip rolling down a gentle slope, with three olive green vehicles parked to one side. But on this part-finished runway outside the Northern Alliance village of Gulbahar, 38 miles north of Kabul, rests America's hopes of kick-starting its badly stalled war in Afghanistan.

A massive US-led operation will soon begin pouring in weapons and, crucially, great piles of ammunition to enable the Northern Alliance to go on the offensive. There is no other way. The passes across the great Hindu Kush mountains behind us are now blocked by snow. At the moment, the gulf between the Air Component and Ground Component of the battle against the Taliban is laughable. The Air Component kicks in each morning as B-52s cruise across the Shamali plain and drop their carpets of bombs. Fighter-bombers then wing in, twisting away from the desultory groundfire.

But through all this, the Ground Component - the Northern Alliance forces stationed in the valley - plays volleyball. All along the front line that snakes through this plain, Alliance troops who might be expected to take some part in the proceedings are instead stringing their nets between ruined buildings and the low trees that cover much of the area. There is nothing else to do. They have some guns and tanks, but no ammunition.

This is about to change. The airstrip can take American short take-off and landing transport planes. It can also take the three Russian helicopters which Yonus Qanuni, the Northern Alliance Minister of the Interior, says the Americans have bought from the Russians and which are now based in neighbouring Tajikistan. Most of the equipment will be Russian, including large amounts of ammunition for the Soviet-era guns and rocket launchers, much of which was left behind by Moscow after its 10-year war in Afghanistan. In this enterprise, Russia and America are unfamiliar allies. In September Russia's Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, announced during a historic meeting at Nato headquarters in Brussels that Moscow would be donating the equipment - and he invited the West to help pay for it.

For this new phase of the war, the Northern Alliance will bear the brunt of the fighting - and the casualties - but its forces will be bolstered by the biggest special forces operation Britain and the US have ever mounted. An ambitious plan being considered by the Ministry of Defence involves dividing up Afghanistan into British and US sectors. In parallel operations both countries will use paratroops to open and secure bases. Sources close to the operation told The Observer that special forces teams will then be flown in: in Britain's case, two squadrons of the SAS.

They will begin to enact a doctrine drawn up last year for using special forces to destroy an enemy from within. Rather than attack the Taliban front line where it is strongest, they will use helicopters to strike targets deep in the rear, including supply dumps, headquarters and roads. Australian, French and Turkish special forces being sent to the region are likely to be folded into the British or American sectors.

All of this comes with one battle - for control of the White House - recently won. The hawks led by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have won out against the doves, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell. Plans for a limited military campaign, coupled with diplomacy, have led down a blind alley, argue the hawks.

There has been much talk of avoiding fighting during Ramadan, but for Washington the big concern is Christmas. Afghanistan's warlords never stopped for Ramadan and few expect the coalition to do so either. But there is great pressure to achieve something by Christmas, when the heavy snows and the plunging temperatures will make military operations in Afghanistan far more difficult.

In fact, the winter break could be an advantage, say the planners, providing the coalition has already torn a sizeable hole in the Taliban lines. With that achieved, the winter break can, they hope, be portrayed as a 'last chance' for negotiators, perhaps from the United Nations, to get the Taliban to agree to coalition demands.

But all of this is a long way off: the first plane has yet to land on this airstrip, never mind to restock a badly depleted Northern Alliance arsenal. And then will come the really hard part - taking on the Taliban.

Last week armchair pundits were filling the airwaves with talk of the 'psychological shock' the Taliban must be suffering under the hammer blows of the air strikes. From the front line, four miles from the bombing, the reality is a little different. Even as the bombs rain down, you can see Jeeps and trucks scurrying across the plain, sending up great plumes of dust, their drivers seemingly unafraid of the American jets prowling overhead.

When Northern Alliance commanders break into Taliban radio traffic, their enemies are not pleading to surrender - rather, they are screaming foul-mouthed epithets into their walkie-talkies. When the last jets turned for home at dusk on Wednesday, a lone Taliban tank cracked out two shots at Northern Alliance lines, a thundering two-fingers gesture nobody will have missed. The Taliban are not about to roll over and die. The West may label them as lunatic for their obsession with banning televisions, neckties, high-heeled shoes and kite-flying, but in fact they are something harder.

The Taliban are the culmination of more than 20 years of fundamentalism, initially encouraged by the US when it recruited Islamists to fight against the Soviet occupation forces. The soldiers who are dug in here include volunteers from more than 30 Muslim nations. Many of them met here during the war against the Soviet forces. Others were once religious students who spent time at the colleges built by Pakistan along its border with Afghanistan to help foment the very extremism they are trying now to beat down.

Through their common experience of the Afghan wars, first against the Soviet Union, and later in its civil wars, a generation of fundamentalists have met and bonded, exporting their concept of a revolution back to countries as widely dispersed as the Philippines, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Nigeria. Afghanistan is the apex of their concerns and their centre. It is where they started and it is where they will finish.

The Taliban leaders, and the thousands of foreign volunteers, also know that there is nowhere to run. If they lose this war, they will either be killed by the Alliance warlords, or else sent home to face probable execution. And the Taliban remain a formidable military force. Unnoticed under the weight of bombs last week, there was just one tiny adjustment to the front lines down on this plain - and it went in the Taliban's favour. Several hundred metres were taken from the fighters of the Northern Alliance. Not bad for a force that is being hammered day and night by the United States Air Force.

Gulbahar bazaar, a stone's throw from the airstrip, reveals something else about conditions on the Taliban side of the line: this market is packed with food, rice, cooking oil, Iranian Pepsi and boxes of biscuits. And all of it comes over, via donkey, from Taliban territory. The Taliban, far from being short of food, have so much of it that they allow it to be exported to their enemies - charging each smuggler, known locally as Donkey Men, $10 a time. It is this trade that keeps much of the Northern Alliance, now cut off from road links with aid depots to the north, from starvation. Traders here report that conditions are indeed desperate for the poor on the other side of the line - but they also say the Taliban themselves are fit, well fed and ready for war.

Copyright, Guardian Newspapers Ltd., United Kingdom, Fair Use for Educational and Research Purposes Only

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), November 04, 2001

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